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Anger, revenge shouldn’t be motives in local school-funding decision

By ROD HAXTON
Scott County Record

Taxpayers in Scott County USD 466 are being asked to approve a two mill increase in the capital outlay levy – taking the overall levy to eight mills. This will generate roughly $180,000 in added revenue next year (possibly more) based on current property valuations.

Rod Haxton is editor/owner of the Scott County Record.

Rod Haxton is editor/owner of the Scott County Record.

Of course, the levy is subject to petition and – not surprisingly – there are people chomping at the bit to stop the levy from going into effect. People are angry about the $1.1 million shortfall in the school district’s budget. They are upset about people losing their jobs. Quite honestly, there are people who won’t be satisfied until the superintendent is gone.

That’s understandable. It’s a situation that none of us enjoy and we certainly don’t like the consequences. So the initial reaction is to “get even,” but with whom?

The district superintendent because he got us into this mess, right? It’s easy to blame him because he is the man in charge. Ultimately the buck stops at his desk. And we haven’t heard Superintendent Bill Wilson deny that. He admits to making a “mistake.” But it’s not that simple. It never is.

Here are some simple truths:

1) The superintendent isn’t entirely responsible for us getting less money from the state than anticipated. The state legislature has been putting the screws to school districts for years. The latest Supreme Court ruling confirmed that. And while this financial shortfall is, in part, self-inflicted, we aren’t alone in feeling the financial pinch. Many other school districts around the state (i.e., Hutchinson, Hays, Holcomb) are also experiencing similar problems and cutting staff and budgets.

2) In addition to overestimating the amount of revenue the district would be receiving from the state, the school district also took on expenses that, in hindsight, the board and administration would have scaled back.

After a five percent salary hike in 2012-13, there was no COLA in 2013-14 for the staff. However, those on supplemental contracts (coaches) received a 10% pay hike for 2013-14.

For the past two years, the district has been reimbursing its employees the $500 deductible on their health insurance plan. And the district is paying the premiums for a single plan for each of its full-time classified staff (cooks, secretaries, custodians, etc.).

This was an attempt to reduce the employee turnover and keep good people. We know of one individual who began working for the district because of this benefit.

“We need that insurance coverage,” said the employee’s spouse.

As Wilson said recently, “It’s easy now to look back and say we shouldn’t have done it . . . that we couldn’t afford it. People can say that knowing what we know now about our budget. But was it the right thing to do? Yes.”

3) We didn’t get into this budget mess because someone embezzled money or because we were spending on things the district absolutely did not need. We got into this situation, in part, because the board and administration chose to invest in its people. A terrible idea, right?

And we made the bigger mistake of trusting that the legislature would do the right thing and invest in our schools and our children.

Apparently another bad idea.

Kansas school districts have been feeling the squeeze for years. It’s impossible not to when basic state aid per pupil is $3,838 – nearly $1,000 per pupil less than it was in 2000-01. Yes, the state legislature has cut basic funding over the past 14 years by 20.2% while expenses for utilities, salaries, fuel, insurance, etc., have gone up.

Let’s look at it another way. Based on the value of a dollar in 2013, basic state aid in the 2003-04 school year was $5,778 per pupil (which includes basic aid and unrestricted weightings). That dipped to $4,497 in 2012-13, according to the Kansas Association of School Boards.

By either calculation, Kansas schools and our students are losing . . . not just in Scott County but in all 105 counties.

Why should the governor and legislature continue to get a free pass with a tax policy that’s nothing short of malpractice, to say nothing of its neglect of public education?

The Joke Called ‘Local Control’

In response, the legislature has wiggled out of some of its responsibility by promising “local control.” Everyone loves local control, right?

What it really means is the legislature is giving local school districts more latitude to tax themselves to offset funding that isn’t coming from the state.

More “local control” is now possible by allowing school districts to increase their capital outlay levy up to eight mills. Which is what the USD 466 board of education is hoping to do.

Taxpayers must keep in mind there are limits as to how capital outlay funding can be spent. For example, it can only be spent for computers, buses and vehicles, building improvements/repairs, etc. Under the new legislation, there are also certain instances where labor attached to improvement projects can be paid out of capital outlay.

This money can’t be used for teacher or administration salaries, textbooks, utilities, to pay off school bonds, etc.

With the latitude to pay for a few more things out of capital outlay, it will give the district a little more room elsewhere in the general fund and – just as importantly – allow the district to begin rebuilding its contingency reserve fund.

This is a goal that’s responsible and, over time, will again put the district on firm financial ground.

Or there is another course of action.

People can sign a petition protesting the capital outlay increase. They can do it out of anger, or spite or simply because they don’t like higher taxes and apparently it’s easier to vent your frustration with the local school board or superintendent than it is with Gov. Brownback or one of the legislators who have been neglectful in their duties.

And even if you believe you’re sending a message to the superintendent or to the board members, you need to ask, “Who really pays the price?” The answer is, of course, our school district, our community and our students.

Defeat of the capital outlay resolution will delay the district’s goal of having four elementary teachers for every grade level in the elementary school, which is a huge asset. Some maintenance and improvement projects will have to be put on hold. It will take longer to restore the 2% pay cut that staff members voluntarily took in order to help the district’s finances. And it will limit the district’s ability to upgrade textbooks (a $150,000 purchase has been delayed indefinitely).

This is just a small example of the price we will pay if some people refuse to be satisfied until someone’s head is on a platter.

A number of factors contributed to the predicament we’re in. How we choose to get out of this situation can either show our ability to come together as a community, or it can reveal the ugly side of human nature when we feel that we’ve been wronged and we want some measure of revenge.

Those are the facts. What we choose to do with these facts is up to us.

Rod Haxton is editor/owner of the Scott County Record.

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